Shell Game

Naveen Patnaik keeps the national parties guessing

Naveen Patnaik (left) with Pyarimohan Mohapatra, whom he expelled from the BJD in 2012. Patnaik’s power in Odisha has made him popular at the centre. Ashoke Chakrabarty / the hindu archives
01 March, 2014

IN THE SECOND WEEK OF FEBRUARY, both Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi hit the campaign trail in Odisha. The state, which is due to hold assembly elections within the next four months, has been governed for 14 years by Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, whose Biju Janata Dal party controls two-thirds of Odisha’s 21 Lok Sabha seats and seven out of every ten of its assembly positions. In the months before Gandhi and Modi arrived, Patnaik was advertised by leaders of a potential third-front alliance as a front-runner for the coalition’s prime ministerial candidate.

At a rally on 9 February, Gandhi tore into Patnaik’s administration, invoking a litany of malfeasance, including a Rs 60,000-crore scam probed by the central government’s MB Shah Commission on illegal mining. “Your money earned from coal, iron ore, manganese and different minerals are going to others’ pockets, while the state government is unable to run schools and hospitals,” Gandhi said. Two days later, Modi was more restrained; he avoided mentioning the corruption uncovered by the Shah Commission, but ridiculed the idea of a third-front alliance: “Eleven parties come together for the third front. They go to Delhi and take photos holding hands since they can’t show their faces in their states.”

The difference between the two speeches might be attributed to current political realities, which have everything to do with the only politician who really matters in the state—Patnaik. Even as he flirts with a third front, the chief minister, who was previously a BJP ally for over ten years, is seen as a man who might just as easily throw his weight behind a National Democratic Alliance government led by Modi.

This flexibility has marked Patnaik’s entire political career, allowing him to join hands with the BJP, remain close to the Congress leadership, and yet be seen by the Left as a potential prime minister. If the media tends to find him inscrutable, it may be because cultivating uncertainty is Patnaik’s deliberate strategy; as a politician who is almost unchallenged in his home state, it pays to remain open to all configurations of power that may emerge after the polls.

Gandhi’s attack on Patnaik may reflect a perception that the Congress now stands to lose nothing in the upcoming elections if it takes Patnaik on directly, but the party is in no position to do the chief minister much harm. Congressmen say this is because the party’s long-term approach to the state, which has been dictated by the need to keep Patnaik placated, has weakened the party.

In the second half of 2012 and the first half of 2013, for example, the Congress seemed to be re-emerging as a force to reckon with in Odisha. The party unexpectedly won several civic elections, and staged a statewide shutdown and a rally in Bhubaneswar to protest against corruption in the Patnaik government. This is the moment the All India Congress Committee chose to replace its belligerent but effective state party chief, Niranjan Patnaik, with Jaydev Jena, a Dalit leader with relatively little clout who had been removed from the same post in 2009 because of his poor performance. The reshuffling strengthened Naveen Patnaik’s hand, and looked like a concession to the possibility that he will emerge as an important ally in the future. This is a hope the Congress shares with the BJP, and Patnaik aims to keep it this way.

Patnaik’s political astuteness—and the job security it has earned him—would have been difficult to predict in 1997, when he came to the state as a political novice after the death of his father, the legendary chief minister Biju Patnaik. Before that, Naveen had lived mostly in Delhi, moving in the most rarefied of social circles and showing almost no interest in politics. No one expected him to maintain control over the power he largely inherited.

In the beginning, Patnaik was a beneficiary of his father’s immense popularity, but, despite the legacy, he was rightly considered an outsider. He quickly made a virtue of this. A senior bureaucrat who was once very close to Patnaik told me he was among those who had advised the chief minister not to learn Odia, the state’s dominant language. “Once he learns the language, the halo around him will disappear into thin air,” the bureaucrat said. “He is better off if he is inaccessible, and he will remain a star as long as he does not appear to be just another Odia.”

For more than a decade, Patnaik’s allure in Odisha was given substance by his father’s principal secretary, the IAS officer Pyarimohan Mohapatra, who later became a member of the Rajya Sabha. During much of this period, Mohapatra was seen as running both the government and the party, while Patnaik acted as a rubber stamp. All policy decisions and even important transfers and postings needed Mohapatra’s nod. While the chief minister was content shuttling between his cosy office and his heavily guarded home (called Naveen Niwas), or gracing public functions where he delivered speeches in Odia by reading out pages of roman type, it was Mohapatra, known as the “BJD Chanakya,” who dealt with officialdom and party workers on a daily basis. Senior bureaucrats and ministers used to touch Mohapatra’s feet when they visited his home to seek his “advice and blessings.” State revenue minister Surjyo Narayan Patra once described Mohapatra as a god in human form.

But Patnaik was not the mere figurehead he appeared to be. In the late 1990s, with the day-to-day business of governance in the hands of Mohapatra, and his political security underwritten by alliances with the NDA at the centre and the BJP in the state, Patnaik had space to play on his outsider status and cultivate the image of a clean administrator. He began firing ministers who came under the “shadow of corruption”—one of the chief minister’s favourite phrases—and used the state vigilance department to prosecute hundreds of officials, from clerks to IAS, IPS and IFS officers, for profiteering. In many cases, the charges were never substantiated, but Patnaik’s actions still made for good news.

Over the years, Patnaik has sacked at least 36 ministers, and kept his reputation for probity remarkably spotless, despite controversies over the state’s acquisition of land for the POSCO steel plant, over its questionable joint venture with the Vedanta company to mine bauxite in the Niyamgiri hills, and over other major natural resource projects. He has also maintained a progressive, secular image derived in no small measure from his past life as a Delhi socialite and aesthete.

All of this has been backed by what is most important in any politician—the ability to win elections. Patnaik’s record at the polls has not only disoriented the opposition, but has also kept in check rebels within his party; BJD assembly members and ministers who have been completely sidelined by Patnaik’s regime are simply too scared to act on their resentment. A cabinet minister who I’ve known for years told me that there were many occasions when he wanted to revolt against the dictatorial manner in which the party and the government were being run, “But I had to keep quiet because that man is winning all the time. If you displease him he will sack you and not give you the ticket next time.”

This grip on state politics has helped Patnaik enter a virtuous circle with Odisha’s local mainstream media, which is largely controlled by fellow politicians. News coverage is increasingly well disposed towards the chief minister, who makes sure he is on television every day—though he mostly offers up hollow one-liners (“I will certainly look into matter and see what best can be done”; “The law will take its own course”) that are the object of derision among local reporters. Patnaik’s PR team demands that journalists submit their questions in advance, and he has held only a small handful of press conferences during his entire tenure as chief minister.

Patnaik’s political confidence has grown in step with his popularity, and about five years ago he began asserting himself more aggressively. On Mohapatra’s advice, he decided to sever a decade-old alliance with the BJP just weeks before the 2009 general elections. In doing so, he once again turned a seeming weakness to his advantage.

In August 2008, the Kandhamal district, in western Odisha, erupted in riots that predominantly targeted Christians; Patnaik’s government was accused of failing to act quickly to stem the violence, and several Christian groups petitioned the central government to intervene. The BJP was also badly tarnished, because many members of its parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, were implicated in the violence. Suspicions about the chief minister’s complicity were heightened when he hosted Ashok Singhal, chief of the radical RSS affiliate organisation the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (whose members had reportedly participated in the riots), for breakfast in early September.

Patnaik’s secular reputation looked like it might suffer irreparable damage. But when he broke off ties with the BJP and pulled out of the NDA eight months after the violence, claiming the entire world was horrified by what had happened in Kandhamal, his halo was restored. More importantly, he was able to shed an unpopular ally, and improve his electoral position. He tied up with the Communist Party of India, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party. In the subsequent elections, Patnaik’s party increased its total number of Lok Sabha seats by three, and its assembly seats by 42; his new allies added one member of parliament and five state legislators to this stable. Meanwhile, the disgraced BJP lost all seven of its Lok Sabha seats in the state, and 26 of its 32 assembly members.

In the years since, Patnaik has consolidated his power in Odisha. In June 2012, he finally acted against his consigliere, Mohapatra. Accusing Mohapatra of plotting a coup, Patnaik expelled him from the party. In addition, he took action against eight ministers, four corporation heads and 24 chiefs of cooperative bodies who were considered close to Mohapatra. The party, as a result, became totally subservient to Patnaik.

At the same time, Patnaik has tried to parlay his unrivalled strength in Odisha into a national role. In February 2012, he took the lead in opposing the National Counter-Terrorism Centre, which many state leaders feared would increase the centre’s influence over their domains. Patnaik lobbied the prime minister, and reached out to chief ministers Mamata Banerjee, Jayalalithaa and Narendra Modi. He appeared to be building a front to take on the Congress-led government.

Then, that May, Patnaik took political observers by surprise by announcing that his party would support the rebel NCP member and former Lok Sabha speaker PA Sangma’s bid for president, which was backed by Patnaik’s former allies in the NDA. Patnaik brought Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK on board, and claimed credit for mooting the name of a “tribal leader” from the “backward Northeast” for the highest post in the land. He also snubbed his ally in Odisha, the NCP, by not consulting Sharad Pawar about Sangma’s candidacy.

Although Pranab Mukherjee eventually won, Patnaik successfully projected himself as a contender in national politics. He also signalled a willingness to collaborate again with the NDA, and to treat with parties who may well be part of the next coalition government. But his political stock is so high that he has also been able to remain popular with leaders from the Left. From just another member of the NDA in the late 1990s, Patnaik has become a politician about whom Sitaram Yechury could say this past November, “Naveen is an able leader. I will be happy if he becomes the prime minister.”

This is a mantle Patnaik is in no hurry to accept. He has not yet committed himself to the alternative front advocated by his allies, the CPI and the CPM. He told CPI leader AB Bardhan in December to wait and see how the situation develops. He reiterated this wait-and-watch strategy after CPM general secretary Prakash Karat came to see him to discuss a federal front in January.

Patnaik understands perfectly well that the CPI and the CPM are trying to bargain for a few assembly and Lok Sabha seats in Odisha. They were important allies in 2009, when he used their help to wash away the sins of the Kandhamal riots. But now—even with Pyarimohan Mohapatra at the head of his own regional party, the Odisha Jan Morcha, which was launched last year—Patnaik simply does not need them.  In mid February, the BJD spokesperson Kalapataru Das announced that the party will fight all 147 assembly and 21 Lok Sabha seats in Odisha on its own.

If for once Patnaik is not keeping his options open for an alliance in the state, it’s likely because the decision creates more options for him at the centre. When the goal is to maximise seats for greater bargaining power in a potential coalition government—of any political stripe—seat sharing would be self-defeating. Patnaik is ensuring that Yechury will not be the only one to see him as a potential prime minister.